An appropriate title for any Jorge Luis Borges collection, Labyrinths is that selected by Penguin for their ‘best of’ printing of the author. Containing short stories, essays, and parables, each selection takes the reader on a winding path of ideas that seems to branch off infinitely into the wonder of reflective thought. Surreal in concept rather than imagery, it’s no surprise many of the most intelligent writers of fantasy and science fiction cite Borges as one of their significant influences. Erudition is on full display, so the reader should come fully prepared to wade in over their head in abstract allusion and references — known and unknown.
With its limited accessibility, Labyrinths is the opposite of mainstream fantasy. With Borges utilizing civilization’s range of output, the stories possess elements of the quotidian and esoteric, scholarly and conceptual, and interweave these concepts with (literally) extraordinary flexibility. A lifetime of knowledge and musing is packed within each selection and readers who do not consider such writing pretentious stand a chance to be fully rewarded.
Surreal without being overt, mythical without the associated verbiage, and applicable in subtle ways, Labyrinths — and all of Borges writing for that matter — is impossible to be anything but intelligent, mind-expanding reading that spans the breadth of humanity and its writings. Few are able to match the author’s pace for ideas, so the stories require an investment — an effort — to delve into the references encountered which are not known and ruminate upon those which are known to fully comprehend the tangible, often abstract, notions being driven at. Many of the ideas and people were perhaps better known in the period in which Borges was writing, but others continue to be recognized. For every unfamiliar theory and theorist, there is more recognizable territory — Locke, Russell, Hume, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche — to rely on, allowing the reader an easier time putting the pieces in place. Suffice to say, the stories may be short, but can be, and often need to be, re-read to garner full comprehension and appreciation.
And the reward? Well, like Edwin Abbot’s Flatland, coming to understand another dimension of thought would seem it, and with Labyrinths, it’s not the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd dimension, but the 4th and beyond. Borges realm is the mind rather than spatial reality (perhaps they are indeed the same?); eventually one must come back to the real world and there justify where they’ve been. The continual references to mirrors only intensifies this need. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is an exemplary piece whose ideas are only fully available to those who read the story, as any attempt at explanation results in a re-telling. The material in Labyrinths features Borges confidently in dialogue with his own wandering ideas. Pondering and reflection are the main modes of thought and the stories are closed internally, yet remain fully open conceptually, with the only firm conclusion being that there is no ultimate conclusion.
If there is a potential drawback to Labyrinths, it is the density of the erudition. Each story needs to be tackled one by one, it’s difficult to give yourself over and let the words take control. Certainly not a fault of the author’s, it is simply the nature of the animal. Thus, for the collection to be absorbed fully, it’s best in small doses; looking through the kaleidoscope for too long can hurt the eyes, but glimpses here and there are lush and exotic.
I have thus far refrained from giving examples from the collection. The reason is that each story is packed so tight with ideas it would be impossible to do them justice in a line or two. I will leave it up to the reader to discover the actual content. Otherwise, if it isn’t already clear, Labyrinths is an artistic, cerebral read that will require attention for anyone not well-versed in classics and philosophy. Borges is ostensibly a product of his times, so knowledge of late 19th century and early- to mid-20th century thinkers and artists would be a bonus. Rising above surreal imagery (a la Dali or Varos), Borges focuses on surreal ideas. With description very light, there are few tangible elements for the reader to latch onto. Alight a dragonfly, Borges takes the reader on a zig-zag, ‘round-the-way ride through the labyrinths of idea — ideas that can only exist in the mind.